RALEIGH — “Please don’t put me in a nursing home” is a sentiment I hear often from my senior clients. Many people seem to equate nursing homes with captivity and the end of all freedom. Realistically though, as we live longer than our predecessors, often with various disabilities and debilitating health problems, nursing homes will eventually become the only option for many of us.
And indeed, becoming dependent on caretakers in a nursing home does require major adjustments and a relinquishment of some control over everyday affairs. Any such heavy dependence on others naturally lends itself to potential abuse or mistreatment when there are not safeguards and protections in place. But under both federal and state law, there are many safeguards and protections that give nursing home residents the right to maintain some autonomy.
Whether you are contemplating admission to a nursing home or just know someone who resides in one, it’s a good idea to become familiar with residents’ rights under both North Carolina and federal law. The federal nursing home regulations were recently expanded to give residents more rights.
Both sets of regulations cover privacy and communication, explicitly giving residents the right to have private phone access, mail access and the materials necessary to send and receive mail, as well as the right to have visitors of one’s choice at any reasonable hour. Other important topics addressed in nursing home regulations include choices about scheduling (including waking and sleeping times), when residents must receive notices of changes (including transfers or discharges), how grievances must be handled, and freedom from restraints and abuse.
The state summary of rights lists the right “to manage his/her own financial affairs unless other legal arrangements have been implemented.” It’s important to understand that this does not give agents named in powers of attorney the right to go beyond the authority given in that document or to restrict a resident’s access to visitors or communication with others. I sometimes hear from clients that family members acting under a power of attorney believe they can unilaterally decide which visitors the resident may receive. However, powers of attorney generally do not give agents that authority and nursing homes should not go against the resident’s wishes about visitor access.
One thing that should be considered carefully at the very beginning of a nursing home stay is the admission agreement, typically a lengthy and comprehensive document. As with any contract, it’s important to read this document closely and discuss any questions or concerns before signing it. Some facilities may not yet have updated their contracts to reflect current law. For example, nursing homes have traditionally asked for a cosigner, a third party such as a spouse or other family member, to agree to be financially responsible in these contracts. However, facilities that accept Medicaid or Medicare are now prohibited by federal law from requesting or requiring such responsibility from a third party. They are also prohibited from requiring a waiver of the facility’s liability for loss of a resident’s personal belongings. Reviewing these agreements carefully before signing them and knowing one’s rights ahead of time can help with transitions into nursing homes so that they don’t have to feel like the beginning of the end.
Jennifer Stuart is an attorney in Raleigh with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Senior Law Project (SLP). She writes monthly articles about legal issues affecting seniors. The SLP provides free civil legal help to North Carolinians who are 60 or older. To contact the SLP, call 1-877-579-7562 (toll-free), Monday through Friday, 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m.